At least once in your life, you deserve to hunt monster whitetails.
“We do all the Mafia stuff,” jokes Steve Black as he and his fellow Louisianans tell me about their various businesses cleaning high-rises, collecting garbage and street cleaning in New Orleans. I had just met Steve and his fellow goodguys Charlie Lusco, Scott Dowdy, Darren Meyer and brothers Dickie and Wade Strahan at Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch in Bland, MO. I was on assignment; they were there to have a great time, shoot big bucks and learn what it takes to grow record book-antlered deer of their own.
“I’m after a 220-inch typical buck,” says Charlie. Steve is after a good mature buck that is in the 200-inch class because after decades of hunting and taking many bucks in the 135- to 141-inch class, he can’t seem to cross that threshold. While both hunters have those specific goals in mind, they also agree that this trip is more about a group of co-workers and life-long friends getting together and enjoying themselves.
When I asked why they chose Oak Creek for big bucks and not some place like Saskatchewan, Charlie explained that they’ve been hunting the Mississippi river together all of their lives, and Oak Creek was just a little bit north of them. “It’s a one-day drive,” says Charlie, “plus it’s too cold in Saskatchewan,” he adds with a laugh. For them, it wasn’t about the deer as much as it was about sharing the overall experience together.
It doesn’t take long for us all to settle in and get to know each other, and that’s one of the charms of Oak Creek, according to ranch owner Donald Hill. “Hunters feel like family; like they are at home,” he says when explaining how Oak Creek’s 90 percent repeat business means that he and his wife, Angi, have literally watched some of their clients grow up since they bought the ranch in 2004.
“Oak Creek has been in operation since 1992,” says Donald as he shares the history of the ranch. It was originally a private hunting operation and during that time the owner brought in deer from Canada that had the genetics to grow big antlers. Today, the ranch uses all natural breeding and maintains roughly a 3.5:1 buck-to-doe ratio as well as provides supplemental nutrition to grow really big bucks with emphasis on bucks with really big main frames. How big? Consider that a cull buck is a 2 1/2-year-old that scores less than 180 and that at the time of this writing, whitetails from Oak Creek hold 30 of the top 33 records for “Mid-Western White-tailed Deer (typical) (estate)” in SCI’s comprehensive record book.
“I’ve always loved whitetails since I was a kid,” Donald tells me when explaining why he got into the business. “I started looking all over [for a ranch]. I looked in Texas and Ohio and as soon as we saw Oak Creek, we fell in love with it. It had everything—the land, the lodge, the genetics. I was always fascinated with management and getting the biggest deer I could and it just blossomed.”
The place is gorgeous. A 10-bedroom, 9,000-square-foot lodge flanked by majestic oak trees is both rustic and elegant at the same time--classy without lavish opulence. “There are a lot more women hunters today as opposed to the early 2000s,” according to Donald. “Oak Creek caters to women and families. The lodge has privacy and private rooms.”
Various size food plots break up the ranch’s 1,500 rolling acres of white and red oak woods that are peppered with dense pine groves. The place is thick with no browse lines and it’s easy for a buck to disappear. “Soybeans provide protein in the summertime. That’s what keeps them healthy. It’s the number one thing you can do in the summer,” Donald tells me as he explains how he grows deer with such big antlers.
“Turnips provide late season food after frost—fat and fiber. Clover is for early season. Well-rounded nutrition is what it takes to grow big deer. If you feed them just protein, they will lose weight just like we do on the Adkins Diet,” cautioned Donald. He wants his deer fat.
That was exactly the type of information the guys from Louisiana were looking for. Back home, they practice deer management on two islands in the Mississippi River; one is 10,000 acres and the other 20,000 and they were keen to learn form Donald how to manage for big-antlered bucks. According to Donald, it only takes three simple things: genetics, nutrition and management.
“You have the genetics,” Donald tells Charlie as he looks at a photo of a 165-inch buck they took on the island last year. “With the right nutrition, in three years they will have the same kind of mass as an Oak Creek deer,” he adds.
There are actually two hunting operations at Oak Creek Whitetail Ranch--the original Oak Creek and the adjacent Oak Creek II that Donald started six years ago. Both areas have deer with the same genetics and nutrition programs, but different management styles. Oak Creek is your traditional estate hunt where you are with a guide who estimates the score of the bucks you see and you’re charged a fee based on the antler score of the buck you take. Oak Creek II, on the other hand, is semi-guided in that your guide drops you off at your stand and if you see a buck you like, you take it, and it’s a flat fee no matter how high or low the deer scores.
Average deer score on Oak Creek is 255 and, while Oak Creek II is a less expensive option, it is by no means second-class—the biggest buck to come out of it so far scored an impressive 374. Average score at Oak Creek II is 180—impressive in its own right—and Oak Creek’s photo galleries show that plenty of 200+- and even 300+-inch bucks are taken there each year by hunters who are patient. In the past six years, 38 bucks scoring greater than 200 have come off of Oak Creek II.
Though Donald says he has no “typical” client—they range from the average deer hunter who just wants a good hunt to someone who specifically wants a world record—Oak Creek clients tend to be upper class businessmen and women while Oak Creek II clients are more likely working middle class.
“There is no ‘ground shrinkage’ here,” says Donald when telling me what surprises clients the most about hunting at Oak Creek. “Customers say ‘Wow! That deer is a whole lot bigger than I thought!’” And that’s not just with respect to antlers—bucks at Oak Creek are regularly 250 to 300 pounds so you need a powerful cartridge. Donald recommends 7mm or .300 mags and thought my .308 a bit light, but felt better when I told him I was shooting Doubletap ammo with Swift Scirocco II bonded bullets that are built with performance on big, tough animals in mind.
Hunting Oak Creek is typically from fully enclosed elevated box or ground blinds. There may be some spot-and-stalk opportunities and rattling is effective during the rut. I was there in early November and the rut was just starting to hit. Does were broadcasting their readiness, there were visible scrapes and it was common to see bucks panting from exertion or sporting their latest battle wound.
A warm fall had kept much of the clover still green and it was on the far edge of just such a plot that my guide, Shane Boyer, who has been guiding at Oak Creek for six years, spotted the kind of buck we were looking for--big bodied, mature and with a heavy, typical rack. He was alone and feeding leisurely about 150 yards away, just over a little rise that hid his vitals. We eased along the edge of the food plot while cutting the distance until a clear shot was possible. Shane deployed the Trigger Stick so I could take a steady standing shot and when the crosshair settled on the buck’s shoulder, I sent the 165-grain Scirocco flying. The deer bucked at the shot and dived into the edge of the woods where we found him and delivered a finishing shot.
With a score of 202, it is the biggest whitetail of my life (until I go back), but surprisingly the second smallest buck of our group with at least one of those bigger deer coming from Oak Creek II. I had to head home before everyone tagged out, but Steve ended his hunt with a positively dandy 215 7/8 and Charlie a monster 293 6/8. Darren took a 212 4/8 off of Oak Creek II where Dickie scored a 199 6/8.
About a month after we met at Oak Creek, I learned from Steve that Charlie had taken a buck on the islands that unofficially scored 188. Clearly, like Donald said, the genetics are there and it’s probably just a matter of time and following Donald’s advice on management and nutrition until they’re seeing more monster bucks like that. What will the Cajun crew be doing between now and then? They’ve already re-booked at Oak Creek for next year.--Scott Mayer